To what extent are we products of our environments? An examination of the ways in which dysfunction is passed down through the generations.
Nature is driven by cycles. They are there in the elements, in our plant life, in all the various facets of nature, and humanity is no exception. What we do happens time and again, age after age, generation after generation. Our belief systems change, as do our fashions and lifestyles, but our essence is unchanging. What we see and feel is imprinted on our minds, and we emulate the different sounds and actions that create our environments. We don’t knowingly choose the families that we join; we only remember where it is that we land. Many of us are lucky and are cosseted with love and affection. Others seem less fortunate and rarely meet with kindness.
It is these very cycles that determine the way in which we are socialized, and our ability to contribute effectively to our world – discerning between what is acceptable and taboo, what should be embraced and despised. What we experience becomes our norm, and we often follow suit, blindly unquestioning. Like our parents before us, we find spouses, hobbies and jobs, and churches, mosques or temples to go to. We comply with what our forebears tell us is success because we want them to feel proud of us. And then we die!
This is all well and good when our environment is healthy. But what those seemingly unfortunate souls who land in a family where you they rarely meet kindness? Here in Britain, children’s charities, working alongside statutory social services agencies, proliferate the modern landscape. Only too well they know the true horrors dealt with by children belonging to dysfunctional families. Family Welfare Assistance; Home Start; Barnardos; Parenting Plus; Young Minds; Childline; The Place 2 Be and Kids Company, to name just a few, all attempt to provide early intervention and support for vulnerable families. Friends United Network (FUN), another such organization, provides adult ‘befrienders’ who spend quality time with children on a weekly basis. They do this over a period of four years, on average. In a recent report to the government, FUN had this to say:
‘These children are growing up in families at risk of becoming locked in a cycle of low achievement and high harm… FUN’s objective is to intercept this cycle and create constructive pathways for the children in order to enhance their resilience and help them have a different future from their parents.”
FUN is aware of the wide range of difficulties affecting these families: poor housing, parents suffering from alcohol and drug abuse, domestic violence, lack of local amenities, mental illness, children who are victims of sexual or physical abuse, children who are forced to be silent carers of unwell, disabled or obese parents. There are even less visible issues such as emotional abuse, neglect and those over-exposed – those who have witnessed terrible, terrible things! FUN’s document goes on to say:
“Current social work training, with its ‘contract culture’ focus does not equip practitioners to engage effectively with emotionally impoverished non-coping parents…deprivation is emotional, as well as economic and social…what is most likely to succeed in preventing dysfunctional parents from passing problems onto the next generation is ongoing family support.”
So we have all these agents trying to do the best they can to shatter the cycle of dysfunction – and what? Look at the state of our nation, our youth. Somewhere along the line there is a point which we clearly seem to be missing. To add to our list, there is a type of dysfunction today which has a more acceptable face than those already mentioned. The government and the media have led the way in creating a new body of consumers who have no independent resources with which to consume; I refer to our children! They have been endowed with a level of independence never had by any previous generation of youth. They have been empowered to make choices that, by virtue of their age, they have no experience to make wisely. They are invited to embrace expensive images of materialism with which they are constantly bombarded. Parents are faced with incessant demands to ply offspring with goods, and pressure to meet these demands is immense.
As a consequence of this parental over-indulgence, have our children lost the real meaning of what it is to be a child? By the time they are just 10, the distinction between them, teenagers and adolescents has become very murky indeed. They all have the same gadgets, wear the same clothes, and some are even bold enough to want to go to the same places. At best we seem to have precocious children, flashy mobile phones, iPods and MSN addresses in tact: the functional brand. At worst we have street gangs housing age ranges as wide as 10 to 25; these are the ‘dysfuntionals.’ The dysfunctional rob, and the functional are robbed. This cycle of supply and demand is the burden of today’s youth. At the end of a generation, will there be any functional ones left? What is the impact of witnessing your friend have his face blown off, being stabbed through the heart or being ‘jacked’ in the street in your tender years? What about being a humiliated victim of a video phone recording which is then aired on the World Wide Web? What kind of parents will they become? Only time will tell!
The cycle of dysfunction manifests itself in many ways, and one such method is the cycle of abuse. Countless studies have shown that victims of abuse grow up to be abusers themselves, but this is not strictly limited to the horrors of physical, emotional, or sexual abuse. Children are highly likely to adopt the behaviors of their parents, whether those habits are hard-work and achievement, or alcoholism and substance abuse. But perhaps the most repetitious of these cycles is the cycle of abandonment, as fatherless children become fathers and then abandon their own children before they've even reached the age of 20. Despite the huge crack-down on so-called "dead beat dads" in the court systems and child support services, these litigations address only the symptoms, and not the cause. The real issue is: How can these young men be expected to take on a paternal role without ever having seen the living example?
It may seem all doom and gloom, but it isn’t, not quite. We should all know that there is something very special and unique about humanity: our ability to reason and make choices at an extremely sophisticated intellectual level. So as true as the aforementioned generalizations are, we can reject or accept our known norms, reinvent who we are, and become much more than mere products or victims of our environment. But, alas, as the time-worn adage goes, “’tis easier said than done!”
World famous life coach, Anthony Robbins, holds seminars hosting as many as 12,000 people at a time. Not from a particularly well-balanced background himself, this charismatic personality has journeyed through many difficult issues to become the person he is today. He teaches people strategies that can help them to re-shape their lives and recreate their destinies. Comprised of four primal needs and two spiritual needs, he speaks of a model that is the driving force behind all human behaviour:
“Everybody wants stability about their basic necessities…People have a need to change their state, to exercise their body and emotions…Everybody needs to feel special and important in some way…Humans need to feel connected with someone or something…People are not spiritually satisfied unless their capacities are expanding...Just as people cannot survive without others contributing in some way to their welfare, they cannot be spiritually fulfilled unless they are contributing to others as well.”
Simply outlined, these needs are known as ‘Certainty,’ ‘Variety,’ ‘Significance,’ ‘Connection,’ ‘Growth,’ and ‘Contribution,’ respectively. It’s probable that we can all relate to them as they appear in a loving home and see how they are met. But believe it or not, if we examine the profile of a young gang member, we can see how it is that someone might feel able to adopt a gang as the family (which for them does not exist emotionally) and have their needs met.
By getting food and shelter from a fellow member they can attain stability; their chaotic and unpredictable lifestyles give them variety; a sense of significance is gained from their brazen acts of bravado and the dread they instill in the nation at large; they feel a definite sense of connection with their fellow thugs. Despite the spiritual needs being of a higher order, they too can be sought paradoxically: with every challenge and consequent conquest they feel growth; defence of territories and ‘their boys’ gives them a feeling of having contributed. You see, what’s quite frightening is that these needs can be met in a way that is constructive, destructive or even neutral. You can seek to meet your needs by aspiring to the nobility of Martin Luther King or the barbarity of Charles Manson!
Anthony Robbins reiterates thus: "Regardless of who we are – our background, our profession, our religion, race or creed, we are all driven, day after day, to fulfill primal needs that have been encoded into our nervous systems over the centuries…fundamental drives within each one of us – that compel us forward in a quest to experience a life of meaning. There is no conscious effort necessary; our will to satisfy the primal needs is automatic."
Of course we have the power to break cycles of dysfunction, but it takes spiritual courage and might. Even those from the most stable homes suffer aspects of dysfunction. But they will fare better in their endeavours to break free – there is no knocking a good start of love and affection. As for the others, they may meet a ‘saviour,’ or have a ‘road to Damascus’ life-changing experience like the apostle Paul. But then again, they may not. By virtue of being the future, if our youth are in crisis we can safely assume the nation is in crisis. In response, the government only seems able to fortify its efforts to consolidate the nanny state culture. More and more we are oppressed by heightened policing, calls for ID cards, DNA filing, arbitrary bans and taxes, prescriptive parental interventions – the list could go on. And it seems our nation has become so very dysfunctional that we’ve lost all sense of revolt! Instead, we hold out our wrists, docile and willing to have manacles clapped around them, as we concede to the eventuality of our own civic slaughter.
1st August 2007